The real world cultures that inspired Tolkien
By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, wasn’t just one of the most prolific fiction writers of the 20th century. He was an avid historian, linguist, and translator for cultures and languages across Europe, and he focused on mythological epics and legends. The people he studied shaped his stories from the languages they spoke to the monsters they fight.
A staple of Germanic and Nordic mythology. Short, sturdy people with a love for mountains and craftsmanship, dwarves of Middle-earth are changed very little from the lore in appearance. However, Tolkien based the culture more on the Jewish peoples of Eastern Europe, with a secret language (Hebrew for the Jewish, Khuzdul for the Dwarves), a history of diaspora, and a now more-than-slightly-racist association with gold and jewelry.
The most detailed and unique of all Tolkien’s creations. Elves are immortal beings brought into being shortly after the beginning of the world, and are seen by basically everyone as the most (infuriatingly) perfect, beautiful creatures alive. Their design, from their meticulously detailed language to their flowing architecture, is focused on Celtic and Arthurian (King Arthur, Merlin, etc.) lore. Elves as tall and magical beings of nature instead of short, flying mischief-makers is distinctively Celtic, and this aspect is fully utilized in the film trilogy, which used examples of Celtic art to create the sets of Rivendell. The languages of the Elves, languages being plural because Tolkien was an enormous linguistics nerd, are rooted largely in Finnish and developed from there over the course of decades in his journals.
Tolkien was a linguist first, a historian second, and an author third. This is most evident in the diversity of Men. A complicated group with a long and detailed history, Men are the only race with free will. This allows for astounding cultural diversity, which let Tolkien flex his historical muscles. Rohan, the country of horse lords, is strongly based in Anglo-Saxon imagery. The wide-open plains and emphasis on horsemanship are hallmarks of Anglo-Saxon literature and lore, and the language of Rohan is very similar to Middle English. Gondor, the kingdom Aragorn inherits, is based on a mix of Byzantine, Langobard, and Goth influences, reflected in the films with bleached white walls and high spires, and a desire to restore a lost civilization. Númenor, the greatest historical kingdom of Men, which most Middle-earth kingdoms are descended from, is basically Atlantis and is based in Greek mythology. Those are just the most important regions, however, and less mentioned realms like Angmar have their own influences based around Europe, and the people who live outside of Middle-earth, riding those enormous elephants, are a sort of amalgamation of African and steppe cultures.
Humble, simple, friendly, and fat. The idealized Englishman. The Shire, the home of the Hobbits, is Tolkien’s personal heaven. The rolling green hills and gentle rivers are a fond callback to the quiet English countryside he grew up in. Hobbits as a whole are passionate about food, family trees, and gossip, and are happy to share all of these with friends and family. Quaint and slightly incompetent, these guys are basically just country English folk at their most stereotypical. Stiff upper lip and all.